Blue Ocean Institute

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Ocean Acidification

Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is changing the oceans’ chemistry.  This is ocean acidification.  The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls ocean acidification global warming’s equally evil twin.

The oceans are absorbing up to a million tons of carbon dioxide every hour.

The good news: less carbon dioxide in the air means the atmosphere will warm up more slowly.

You guessed there’s bad news?  Right again!

The bad news is that as the oceans absorb large quantities of carbon dioxide, they become more acidic.  When a molecule of carbon dioxide (CO2) enters the ocean, it immediately forms carbonic acid by binding to, and locking up, carbonate molecules.

Corals, clams, various plankton, crusting coralline algae, and other creatures that make skeletons and shells of calcium carbonate need those same carbonate molecules that carbon dioxide steals.

Carbonate scarcity slows their growth, making them more fragile, and sometimes fatally deformed.  Carbonate concentrations in the upper few hundred feet (tens of meters) of the ocean have already declined about 10 percent compared to seawater just before steam-engine times.

And at the base of the food-chain, some of the most important ocean drifters use calcium carbonate.  They include organisms like single-celled foraminifera and coccolithophorids, which drift the ocean in uncountable trillions, plus certain pteropods (silent ‘p’; they’re related to snails).

Trouble for these organisms means trouble for everything that eats them.  Most people have not heard of pteropods, but they are well known to hungry young mackerel, pollock, cod, haddock, and salmon.  Trouble for corals, meanwhile, is trouble for everything that lives in or on them.

Ocean acidity has increased 30% since the industrial revolution.  Scientists predict that the oceans will become progressively more acidic over the next century.

The solution:  We need an energy economy based on renewable energy, especially energy sources that do not have to be burned, such as the power of the sun, wind, tides, and the heat of the Earth—the power that drives the whole planet.

What will happen to coral reefs?  It’s “hotly” debated.

3 things you can do to fight ocean acidification:

1. Support clean energy businesses
2. Drive an electric or highly efficient vehicle
3. Switch to renewable fuels whenever possible.

Other great ways you can make a difference.

LINKS, VIDEOS & SOURCES

The End of Reefs, Okeanos
Northwest Oysters Die Off, Reader Supported News

Coral Bleaching, Carl’s Blog
Marine Sponges Bore Faster Due to Effects of Climate Change, Blue Ocean Institute
Ocean Acidification in the Weddell Sea, Climate Reality Blog
Ocean Acidification, National Geographic

Carbon Burden on the World’s Oceans, Yale Environment

How Acidification Threatens Oceans from the Inside Out, Scientific American

Carbon Dioxide and Our Ocean Legacy, NOAA

The Ocean in a High CO2 World Symposium, Ocean Acidification Net
Further Reading on Ocean Acidification

Carbon’s Burden on the World’s Oceans, Yale 360


Related Videos:

This groundbreaking NRDC documentary explores the startling phenomenon of ocean acidification, which may soon challenge marine life on a scale not seen for tens of millions of years. The film, featuring Sigourney Weaver, originally aired on Discovery Planet Green.


Natural CO2 vents on the floor of the ocean near Italy cause differing levels of acidity and show how marine life is impacted. This is a look into the future of climate change’s impact on the oceans’ basic chemistry.


Ocean Acidification is a global-scale change in the basic chemistry of oceans that is under way now, as a direct result of the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We are just beginning to understand the impacts of Ocean Acidification on life in the ocean. Host: